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Johnson will not stumble until Starmer tackles him on Brexit | Economics


The recrudescence of corruption and sleaze in a Conservative government ought, traditionally, to be a sign of electoral problems ahead. This was the case in the dying days of the 13 years of Tory rule from 1951 to 1964, and towards the tail end of the Thatcher-Major governments of 1979-97 – 18 years!

And here we are, with a Conservative government that has been in office – with temporary help from the Liberal Democrats – for almost 11 years since 2010, steeped in accusations of sleaze and corrupt contracts; yet there is a widespread assumption that they will win the byelection in Hartlepool – once a Labour stronghold. Moreover, there is even speculation that if they do well in the local elections, prime minister Boris Johnson could spring a snap election on the back of such results and his supposed success with the vaccination programme, to say nothing of a “consumer boom” as the economy is released from the clampdown induced by the onset of the Plague.

One of the many ironies associated with the local elections is that much of the dissatisfaction with Labour at this level is the result of reductions in local authority expenditure prompted by savage cuts in a Conservative government’s grants to councils.

Welcome though a return to some semblance of normality may be, it must be an open question how long it will last, given the way that the slogan “data before dates” is already heading for desuetude, and scientific and medical sources are manifesting concern about the possibility of a third wave of the Plague.

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Johnson’s practice is to claim credit where credit is certainly not due. It was good to see Private Eye, that alert critic of government propaganda, scotch his claim that “the reason we have vaccine success” is due to “greed”, “capitalism”, “big pharma” and “giant corporations that wanted to give good returns to shareholders”. No: as the Eye says, the vaccine “was created with state funding given explicitly because of lack of involvement by Big Pharma”.

A common concern of those who are disgusted by this government is that the Tories appear to have been adept at stealing the opposition’s clothes, outbidding even what Jeremy Corbyn wanted to spend. There has been a welcome return of Roosevelt-style “big government” in the US, and many people are being fooled into believing that the Conservative and Brexit party has also had a change of heart.

No: I use the word “appear” advisedly. As the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation have pointed out, this government plans a continuation of the policies of austerity. The further cuts in public spending being planned will make a mockery of all this “levelling up” propaganda.

The prime minister’s survival has been Houdini-like, although even Houdini met his match in the end. Before Christmas, there was much talk of Johnson’s not being happy in the job. There was also questioning of his ability to survive. Then along came Chancellor Sunak, “on manoeuvres”. However, Sunak seems to be in a spot of bother over having been too willing to help David Cameron in his lobbying. The threat to Johnson now comes from a group of about 40 rightwing, “libertarian” backbenchers who seem blissfully impervious to the dangers of a third wave. Therefore, he is inclined to appease them.

Which brings us to where the threat to this entire rotten government ought to be coming from, namely Her Majesty’s Opposition and its position on Brexit.

As Andrew Blick, of King’s College London argues in a blog for the Federal Trust, Keir Starmer is making a huge mistake in spending so much capital on trying to placate Labour’s Leave voters. Political parties do not hesitate to try to persuade people who did not vote for them last time to change their minds in the next election. Why show so much respect for the minority of Labour voters who voted Leave at the expense of demeaning the majority who voted to Remain?

Blick argues that, despite occasional exceptions, the British electoral system, with its bias towards the importance of marginal seats, is designed to keep the Conservatives in power most of the time. Tony Blair goes down, rightly in my opinion, for his disastrous backing of the invasion of Iraq; but he also made a catastrophic mistake in withdrawing his support for Roy Jenkins’s report on a fairer election system, simply because Blair won a far larger majority in 1997 than he expected.

Blick thinks Starmer should be backing proportional representation; but the Labour leader would be unlikely to get very far while Johnson enjoys his current majority. What he should be doing, which Blick also urges, is concentrating on the economic and social disaster that is Brexit – not least as manifested in the problems with the Irish border.



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